For many centuries, people have been using herbs in their daily lives for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Use of herbs for food and medicine has long been tradition amongst many, and these roots inform the work of a new community of herbalists and growers working to sustain this custom. Here in the Pioneer Valley, there is a longstanding, as well as a growing, community of people who are incorporating use of herbs in their daily lives.Read More
Variety of Enterprises Flourish at Brook’s Bend Farm
Story by Lee Wicks | Photographs by Brianna C. Stachowski
With all the bravado and ignorance of a Brooklyn street kid, I once thought I’d go live off the land someday, grow all my own food, raise animals, weave flax into linen. For various reasons, that never happened—but a sketch of my future farm would have looked a lot like Brook’s Bend Farm in Montague, where sheep graze, chickens wander, and faded red barns stand out against winter snow. That’s what you see if you drive by––the place looks like a perfectly contained family farm.
In reality, owners Suzanne Webber and Al Miller have created a hub of interconnected enterprises. They turned Brook’s Bend into a shared resource for wilderness educators, an herbalist, a permaculture designer, and a pig farmer. Al and Suzanne raise sheep as they have done since 2003 when they bought the place.
I discovered all this one afternoon when I was asked to pick up my grandson from Roots, a wilderness education program, which operates at Brook’s Bend. When I visited their website later I discovered that this 90-acre farm is growing food and healing plants, and helping a new generation of farmers and land-based educators get a start.
Al and Suzanne are among those whom the New York Times referred to as “Agrarian Elders,” in an article in 2014. They have years of knowledge to pass along, a deep reverence for the environment, an aversion to one-acre house lots on some of the most productive farmland in the world, and they have Brook’s Bend Farm.
In their sunroom where skeins of natural-dyed wool are stacked in shelves and woven rugs and throws hang from rods, they talked about the history of Brook’s Bend. In the beginning, Al said, “we ran everything on the edge of domesticated and wild.” In what they describe as “the time of the steep learning curve,” their Highlander cow went into heat during a storm that blew a limb down on her pen. She stepped out and found her way to a bull on a nearby farm. Al and Suzanne got a calf from that adventure. They had a dog that insisted on herding the turkeys. They had large gardens. It was a lot of work.
Then they met Neill Bovaird, founder and director of Wolf Tree Programs, during a visit to the Montague Grange (now called the Montague Common Hall). Neill was looking for a home to expand his wilderness education program and that night Suzanne and Al invited him to visit the farm.
When Neill first walked the land with Al, he pointed to a tree where he thought he might create a learning circle. Al nodded and then quietly led him to a huge ancient white oak. Al said, “I’ve always imagined a classroom under this tree.” Neill agreed, and now this “wolf tree,” so named because it has grown huge and dominant, is the centerpiece of a program where children and adults learn wilderness skills and develop a deep respect for the natural world. The outdoor programs run year round, in all weather.
Al and Suzanne act as wise elders to the children at Wolf Tree. Each spring when the kids have an overnight, Al and Suzanne sit by the fire and tell the story of the land, how it was geologically formed, inhabited by Native Americans, how they came to live on it, and their hopes for the future. Neill said, “The kids love it. They are always filled with questions. Al and Suzanne help them understand that we are just guests here for a while.”
Wolf Tree is not the only wilderness program. Full Moon Girls, run by Dhyana Miller (no relation to Al) focuses exclusively on the needs of young women. Dhyana believes that girls thrive in a female environment. At Full Moon Girls they seek out adventures, prepare herbal remedies, engage in storytelling, and follow their passions guided by women mentors. A tranquil afternoon spent there proved all of this to be true. Girls, grubby from gathering firewood and mucking in the stream, talked, enjoyed long silences, showed me the things they’d made, and demonstrated how to take the sting out of young nettles.
On a sunny field across from the sheep meadow, Chris Marano, a “world-class herbalist” according to Al, grows medicinal plants. He lives down the road, and when he was looking for a place to do this he simply knocked on Al and Suzanne’s door. They connected, and Clearpath Herbals became part of the Brook’s Bend family.
Chris describes himself as a community herbalist. In addition to teaching he offers clinical health consultations and custom-blended herbal preparations for people looking at alternative medicine. The garden and the forest at Brook’s Bend are an extension of his classroom and the source of his apothecary.
Such diversification required planning. Help came from another neighbor. Jono Neiger of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield, is a master permaculture practitioner, and since 2008 he’s been helping Al and Suzanne develop permaculture plantings. A small grove of Chinese Chestnut trees at the edge of the woods, a selection of native habitat plants and a long protective hedgerow by the gardens reflect his work. Jono said, “Al and Suzanne have been super generous in finding all these interconnected uses.”
Grass-fed lamb, wool, and textiles are the cornerstone of the farm. Brook’s Bend lamb is raised on organic, re-mineralized pasture with nothing but the sun, pasture, and forest edge in them. Al and Suzanne would not let me leave without taking lamb loin chops along with me. They were perfect sautéed with garlic and fresh rosemary.
Tyler Sage is the latest addition to the Brook’s Bend Community. He raises pigs that are a cross between a Hereford boar and Berkshire Hereford sows, both heritage breeds in need of preservation. Tyler said, “They are a nice combination of fat and lean.” He sells whole pigs to Sutter Meats in Northampton, and frozen cuts to farm stores and at farmers’ markets.
Tyler is committed to farming and has been for a long time, but like most young farmers he cannot afford to buy land. He said, “Al and Suzanne’s support has been crucial to the development of the business.” He pays rent for a house and access to the barns.
Tyler invited me to a barn to see a sow and her piglets on a cool April morning. The sow was enormous with clear eyes and a beautiful brown bristly coat. Sunlight filtered through the barn. The hay smelled sweet. With the lambs grazing across the street and the pigs cozy in the barn, all seemed well at Brook’s Bend that morning. There’s a powerful sense of place there with people who are right where they want to be doing exactly what they love to do.